So, having just finished Stephen Kelman’s debut novel Pigeon English (shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize), I felt like I had to write about it. This is not just because of the somewhat awesome qualities of the book, but also because of the sense of frustration it has eventually left me with.
First, I would like to place on record that I have nothing but praise for the book, and would definitely recommend it, particularly to fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, as the book follows much of the same premise. The narrator, Harrison, a year seven immigrant to Britain from Ghana, tries to uncover a murderer after a stabbing takes place in his London neighbourhood. However, due to his age and problems fitting in with a new culture, Harri is unable to completely comprehend the danger he places himself in by carrying out his investigation and putting himself into the path of his local gang, the Dell Farm Crew.
Stephen Kelman is able to adopt the 11-year-old boy’s voice very well; he focuses in on Harri’s simple pleasures, such as running, peeing in the toilet after it has been cleaned with bleach, and pigeons. He also makes his childlike ignorance abundantly clear: Harrison does not understand the meaning of phrases like “suck off,” nor can he understand why his aunt sustains injuries, despite her husband having a baseball bat which he nicknames the “Persuader.” As a reader you are left listening to the voice of an innocent and excited child, not only emphasising the goodness of the hero but also your own, jaded knowledge as an adult. Through this, Kelman creates a sense of irony, in that though the reader is learning about Harri’s life through his own words, they tend to know more than he does. You know when he makes the wrong decisions, or stumbles into something dodgy, even if he doesn’t. This can leave you feeling frustrated in some places but it also causes you to laugh out loud at Kelman’s wit and intelligence, making you empathise with the character more, and it’s interesting to contrast a child’s perspective with your own. Do you remember when you were that innocent?
The story, like Curious Incident … , is part detective story, part coming of age. While you follow Harrison’s investigation you also follow his budding relationship with Poppy Morgan, the situation of his remaining family in Ghana, and the temptations both he and his sister face as they both come close to falling off the rails. Given that Harri’s world – a council estate in London – is so wildly different from both Ghana and (seeing as I grew up in York) my own upbringing, it was interesting to read about what life was like in such a place. Sometimes the news reports on gang culture can seem almost clichéd when you live in a sheltered area, but it was the little things in Harri’s life which hinted towards this atmosphere and gave the greatest insight into that world: from the descriptions of the “safe” area, to the attack on an elderly man whom he knows, and his sister’s hideous friend Miquita whom she has to be friends with in order to survive at her school. Harrison’s comparison of his new life with his old, in which gangs “can be used for good things as well,” also leaves you wondering whether this side to Britain is ‘normal’.
And, perhaps, this is what Kelman means us to question with his ending in which there is, for Harrison, no happy resolution. I shall not specify, for fear of ruining the book, but I will state that neither the mystery nor the coming of age sections of the novel are satisfied in the ending, which itself happens so quickly that it leaves you expecting another chapter only to find there isn’t one. Whether or not it was intended to be so for impact, I can’t help but feel that Kelman leaves the novel unfinished – and it is this which has left me feeling so annoyed with Pigeon English. While I can understand that there does not necessarily need to be a happy ending, the novel’s climax is so ambiguous (but not enough that you can’t get a really bad feeling about its outcome) that I can’t help feeling somewhat cheated. It’s as if the epilogue got lost on the way to the printer’s. Given that the novel had up to that point been so concise and frank, I found it frustrating for it to end so abruptly. I would definitely recommend this book, if only to get your opinions on the ending – does it lend anything to the novel, or make a startling point that I have just failed to realise? Personally, I think it’s a bit of a disappointment, much like Lord of the Flies, in that it builds up for a good 250 pages only to bring the story crashing down again in ten.
And on that note, I have only one more thing to add: be nice to pigeons. According to Kelman, they are our guardian angels.